On a wing and a prayer: A paraglider’s first flight

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On a wing and a prayer: A paraglider’s first flight

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“I’m addicted to the sound of roaring wind that hits my ears when I’m in the air,” said Kim Dong-sul, a professional paragliding pilot. “Instead of being scared, you should enjoy the feeling of being up there and becoming one with nature,” he told me, someone who hadn’t previously even ridden a roller coaster.
Last Saturday, I headed to Eoseom, Gyeonggi province, a two-hour drive northwest of Seoul, with two other new students of Jonathan Paragliding School.
Paragliding is a cross between parachuting and hang-gliding. After Frenchman Jean-Marc Boivin, an extreme skier, paraglider and hang-glider, made the fastest descent from Mount Everest in 1988 by paragliding, the sport quickly increased in popularity. In Korea, paragliding was introduced in the late 1980s. Mr. Kim was one of the pioneers of the sport and opened the Jonathan Paragliding School in 1990.
A paraglider consists of a canopy or wing, a bucket-seat harness, lines and strap-like risers that are attached to the pilot’s harness. The harness holds a reserve parachute for emergencies, and has a foam or air-bag back protector.
After checking our equipment carefully, we donned helmets and gloves and strapped on the harness, buckling it to the canopy lines as if we were special forces soldiers.
But we were not about to take off yet. First, we had to practice running, changing course and the correct landing position for about three hours while lugging paragliders weighing about 20 kilogram (44 pound) . With the harness and canopy on one’s back, even standing against the wind was not easy. As the canopy spread, wind filled the cells, which are open in front and closed at the back, and pushed me backward and even dashed me to the ground.
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Running forward seemed nearly impossible at first. Holding the controllers and A-risers, which are connected to the front edge of the wing, the canopy rose above my head, and it was time to let the A-risers go.
Leaning forward, I had to run fast enough to rise into the air. On most attempts, however, the wind was too strong and I fell over backward.
Kang In-duck, another learner, was doing much better than I. The work-out she said she did daily must have given her the strength I lacked. Just by running across the ground, she soon found herself feeling the thrill of being in mid-air, even though only for about 10 seconds. She was enrolled for a three-month course, enthusiastically hoping to be able to fly reasonably well by the end of that.
I, on the contrary, after a number of failures, finally made some ground moving forward, and leapt up when I felt I might be able to fly. Well, it was technically a flight, I guess, but only for a second.
“Why did you stop running and jump up?” Moon Gui-seong, the trainer, scolded. “That’s one of the things you must not do when paragliding. You have to run until your feet don’t reach the ground anymore. You can’t fly by jumping up,” he continued, “If you jump up, you can roll down the hill.”
As we got accustomed to the wind, the trainers taught us how to change course. “If you want to turn to the left, pull down the left controller slightly, while shifting your weight to the left.” “Slight” and “slowly” were the key words. If you pull the controller abruptly or too fast, you roll sharply and can feel “airsick.”
When asked if it’s safe to paraglide when light airplanes are in the sky, Mr. Kim explained, “There is an unseen border in the sky for airplanes and paragliding. The plane pilots do not cross that line, so don’t worry about bumping into an airplane in the sky.”
It was time to try to fly. To the apprehensive new learners, Mr. Kim said, “Trust me and your trainer. Do just what we tell you to do. It will be all right.”
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The first take-off zone was 20 meters (65.6 feet) above sea level with a slope of nearly 45 degrees. Looking down, the possibility of rolling down the hill seemed all too likely.
But as Mr. Kim shouted, “One, two, three. Go!” I ran in a moment of bewilderment and felt myself lift into the air. “Wow! I’m flying!” I thought. But before I could enjoy the sensation, I heard a shout from the trainer on the ground. “Attention. Run!” As I pulled the controllers completely down, putting my arms at my sides, I descended to the ground but missed my timing and fell forward, bruising my knees.
“You have to run when landing in the same manner as taking off,” Mr. Moon said. He explained that is in order to prevent injuries to ankles. When I landed, I should also have turned my body toward the canopy so I wouldn’t be dragged to the rear. The speed of flight is about 30 to 50 kilometers (18 to 31 miles) an hour, depending on the wind strength, Mr. Kim said.
The next step involved jumping from a 45-meter height. As well as fear from the height, hiking there with a 20-kilogram paraglider was tough. The view was spectacular, however. The Yellow Sea was glittering in the sunshine, Daebu Island was visible, as were spring flowers on the hill below. On our left, people were riding four-wheel motorcycles and on the right, a soccer game was being played.
I hadn’t expected I would have to try to fly from this height in only one day, but there I was. We were given walkie-talkies, making me feel more frightened.
Mr. Kim said that one of the most important factors in paragliding is adaptability to nature. “One shouldn’t try to beat an extreme situation, for example when a strong wind is blowing or it’s raining,” he said.
Before taking off, we visualized flying, while waiting for the perfect wind. We closed our eyes, raised our hands half-way to make a w-shape and imagined that we were actually flying. Mr. Kim said through the radio telegraph, “Pull down the right controller, reposition, pull down the left controller, reposition, at attention, run.”
“Don’t worry, even though you missed what I said. I will tell you the next step,” Mr. Kim said. “One, two, three. Go!”
Again, I ran with all my might, and finally flew. My fears before take-off had disappeared and I felt first thrilled and soon comfortable, as if I was swinging from a tree. I flew for about two minutes, not long enough to fully enjoy the experience, but time enough to glimpse the thrill of truly paragliding. Closing my eyes, I see myself flying through the air.


by Park Sung-ha

Other places to enjoy paragliding in Korea: Pyeongchang, Gangwon province, Daebu Island, Yangpyeong and Gwangju of Gyeonggi province. According to Mr. Kim, after eight days of training, anyone can paraglide easily. Middle-level gliders can fly for a few hours at a time on ascending air currents. The one-day experience flight costs 70,000 won ($74), exclusive of lunch and transportation fees of 30,000 won. There is also a tandem paragliding program to experience the sensation of paragliding with a professional pilot.
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